As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, more and more soldiers continue to come back home to Vermont.
For some, the search for employment and housing is a major hurdle. A group called Leadership Upper Valley recently hosted a town meeting style event designed to help ease veterans’ re-entry.
In the audience at the elegant Quechee Club were many well-dressed community leaders who listened to a panel of military experts, including Major Christina Fanitzi.
She entered active duty in 2003 as a U.S. Army intelligence officer, and now attends Tuck Business School at Dartmouth. She plans to teach at West Point.
She looked comfortable in this country club setting. And yet, Fanitzi said, military service members from all social backgrounds often feel out of place out of uniform, and off the battlefield.
“That’s what it feels like for a transitioning soldier. They kind of look similar to you, but they don’t know your language, they don’t know how to dress, and it’s a completely foreign entity,” she told the group.
Fanitzi urged the audience to contact local service organizations to get the names of neighboring veterans and invite them for coffee, or dinner, to break their isolation and to listen and learn about what they might contribute to their communities.
“And I’d say universally whether you are enlisted or officer, when you transition to the civilian sector, you wonder what your value is, and whether you bring any value to an organization,” she said.
Jim Geiling, a doctor at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction has found that military members excel at team work and are often technological whizzes.
“One of the common unifying themes that you’ll find out for a lot of these folks as that they really have this innate sense of wanting to serve,” he said.
But many veterans are not finding ways to do that. Recent Vermont statistics about statewide employment of veterans are not available. But according to the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for vets between ages 25 and 34 is more than 10 percent. For those under age 25, it is more than 20 percent.
Both figures are well above the equivalent rates for civilians. And while the unemployment rate for veterans improved slightly this spring, many say they are unfairly stereotyped as potential PTSD patients.
For some in Vermont, the plethora of online job banks for veterans do not lead to work with the small businesses that form the backbone of rural economies. Many job fairs feature larger companies in urban settings.
That, says Doug Wise, of Leadership Upper Valley, is why networking and brainstorming at local events like this are so important.
“Because the military, who are our neighbors, they’re here, they’re not all of a sudden dropping in from Mars, they are neighbors. If they can add to the leadership of organizations, whether it’s for profit or not for profit or municipalities or whatever it may be, they can add their skills to the community, all the better for all of us,” he said.
One businessman on the panel who is already trying to weave veterans into his enterprise is James Sturm, founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction. Sturm is developing a special curriculum to teach vets how to cartoon, as a way to tell their stories, and perhaps unburden difficult memories.